Midweek Update

Midweek Update

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Bloomberg reports that Johnson & Johnson now expects to receive Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization for its single dose COVID-19 vaccination in late February or early March 2021 which is later than initially anticipated.

J&J’s vaccine offers advantages in ease of distribution and administration [over the currently authorized Pfizer and Moderna vaccines]. Health systems have been navigating relatively complex two-shot campaigns for vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. J&J’s shot will likely protect people with a single dose, and can be stored at refrigerator temperatures for three months; the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines must be frozen. Speaking Wednesday at a JPMorgan Healthcare Conference event, [Moncef] Slaoui said he expects the J&J shot to have 80% to 85% efficacy, surpassing the objective the company outlined in its clinical trial design.

Speaking of the virtual annual JPMorgan Healthcare Conference, the National Law Review reports on Day 1 of the conference here and Day 2 of the conference there. Take a gander at this interesting tidbit from Day 1

[Blue Shield of California CEO] Paul Markovich spoke to the need for real-time quality information that can result in real-time feedback and incentivization to physicians and other providers, rather than the costly and slow HEDIS pursuits we see today.  One health plan noted that it spends about $500 million a year going into physician offices looking at medical records for HEDIS pursuits, but the information is totally “in the rearview mirror” as it is too old when finally received and digested to allow for real-time treatment changes, improvement or planning.  Markovich suggested four initiatives (including the above, pay for value and shared decision making through better, more open data access) that he thought could save $100 billion per year for the country.  Markovich stressed that all of these four initiatives required a digital ecosystem and asked for help and partnership in creating one. He also noted that the State of California is close to creating a digital mandate and statewide health information exchange that could be the launching point for this exciting vision of data sharing and a digital ecosystem where the electronic health record is the beginning, but not the end of the healthcare data journey.

Health Payer Intelligence informs us that

The tension between payers and pharmaceutical companies over drug pricing has carried into 2021, as evidenced by a press release from America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) criticizing pharmaceutical companies for January 2021 drug pricing increases.

“Americans are being hurt by out-of-control drug prices, which are set and fully controlled by Big Pharma alone,” Matt Eyles, president and chief executive officer of AHIP, said in a related blog post.

“The incoming Biden-Harris administration should focus on bipartisan, workable solutions to protect patients, taxpayers, and all Americans from higher drug prices, especially in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.”

Meanwhile STAT News reports that

In an unexpected move, the high-profile billionaire [Mark Cuban] has launched the Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Company, which its website says is “dedicated to producing low-cost versions of high-cost generic drugs” and claims that everyone will get the same low price for every drug it makes.

As part of its mission, the company pledged to provide “radical transparency” about its manufacturing, distribution, and marketing costs. The plan is to add a flat 15% margin to wholesale prices to ensure profitability, but Cuban also promised there will be no hidden costs, no middlemen, and no rebates available only to insurers.

“This is our first step towards taking on the pricing of generic drugs,” Cuban tweeted in announcing the company, which will start by producing a medicine to treat parasites, but plans to introduce more than 100 other medicines by the end of 2021. There are also plans to build a factory in Dallas by next year, according to its web site.

The article reminds us that

[In 2018] several large hospital systems form[ed] Civica Rx, a nonprofit that contracts with manufacturers to ensure sufficient supplies to hospitals across the U.S. The idea is to entice companies, which make injectable and infused medicines but have a minimum amount of sales, to ramp up investment in production. The Civica network, which began with $100 million in capital and loans from three philanthropic organizations, now has more than 50 health systems that represent more than 1,200 hospitals and over 30% of all licensed U.S. hospital beds. The nonprofit is also teaming with the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and 18 of its health plans to supply copycat medicines and combat rising prices.

Bleeping Computer provides us with an update on the SolarWinds backdoor hack, including an explanation of how the hack was implemented and the hacker’s various malware strains.

A week ago, the FBI, CISA, and the NSA also disclosed in a joint statement that a Russian-backed Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) group is likely behind the SolarWinds hack.

“The U.S. government and many private-sector experts have stated the belief that a foreign nation-state conducted this intrusive operation as part of a widespread attack against America’s cyberinfrastructure,” SolarWinds CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna said today.

“To date, our investigations have not independently verified the identity of the perpetrators.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Good news. The Wall Street Journal reports

The Trump administration is releasing second doses of coronavirus vaccines that were reserved for booster shots and is urging states to give the vaccine to anyone age 65 and older, as well as to people with pre-existing health conditions, a shift in strategy that vastly expands the pool of those eligible for shots while presenting another hurdle for the logistics of administering the vaccine at state and local levels.

Starting in two weeks, doses will be allocated based on the pace that states say they are administering the vaccine, as well as the size of a state’s population of people age 65 and older. 

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced the plan on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday. “We now believe that our manufacturing is predictable enough that we can ensure second doses are available to people from ongoing production. So everything is now available to our states and our health-care providers,” he said.

The government had been allocating about half of newly available doses from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. to states since the vaccine rollout began last month. Federal officials said there is enough supply to ensure booster shots will be available and that they won’t extend the current recommended dosing schedules.

Drug makers expect to be able to produce enough vaccine doses to accommodate the new plans, vaccine manufacturers and supply-chain experts say.

The Journal also explains that while scientists are confident that the COVID-19 vaccines will protect you from contracting the disease, they don’t know yet whether they will prevent you from spreading the disease asymptomatically.

“Most vaccines prevent disease as opposed to preventing infection,” says Anna Durbin, a professor of international health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who is working on the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine trial and previously worked on the Pfizer vaccine trial. She believes Covid vaccine studies will eventually show a reduction in asymptomatic transmission but not a complete elimination.

Even if vaccines don’t prevent transmission completely, they can still help populations achieve herd immunity if enough people take them, says Arnold Monto, an epidemiology professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health who chairs the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee. “We can still accomplish a lot even if it is demonstrated that there is still some asymptomatic infection occurring post-vaccination,” says Dr. Monto.

STAT News reports that the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association (“PCMA”) has asked the federal district court in DC to block a Trump Administration rule preventing the use of prescription drug manufacturer rebates in the Medicare Part D program. PCMA contends that the CMS rule impermissibly conflicts with a statutory exemption permitting the use of such rebates in Medicare Part D. Of course.

The Biden administration, which is set to take office on Jan. 20, could also choose not to defend the rebate policy in court, thus mooting the lawsuit.

Biden has not yet taken a position on eliminating drug rebates, but a number of prominent Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have spoken out against the policy as a ndout to the pharmaceutical industry.

Studies —

The death rate from cancer in the U.S. dropped 2.4% from 2017 to 2018, the biggest single-year decline on record and a sign of the impact of new treatments on lung cancer especially, the American Cancer Society said.

It was the second year in a row with a record-setting drop, and the progress continues gains that have been made for more than a quarter-century, the cancer society said in a report published Tuesday. The researchers analyzed cancer mortality data from 1930 to 2018, before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Overall, the cancer mortality rate has fallen 31% since its peak in 1991, according to the report, which was published online in the journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. The latest decline left the mortality rate at 149 deaths for every 100,000 people in the general population in 2018, according to the American Cancer Society.

Use of telehealth jumped sharply during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, with the approach being used more often for behavioral health services than for medical care, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

Between mid-March and early May 2020, telehealth was used by more than 40% of patients with a chronic physical health condition and by more than 50% of those with a behavioral health condition, according to findings published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Overall, almost half of the people who were undergoing treatment when the pandemic shutdown began reported using some form of telemedicine.

Researchers found that the use of telehealth for behavioral health conditions was lower among women and among people over the age of 60. Use of telehealth also was lower among non-Hispanic whites relative to non-Hispanic Blacks, and was lower among those with less than a high school education relative to those with a college degree.

Monday Roundup

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Govexec.com provides an update on COVID-19 vaccine administration by federal agencies to their employees. A friend of the FEHBlog asked him today whether he knew how long it took for a COVID-19 to provide protection following the injection. Good question. The New York Times reported last week that “The protective effects of vaccines are known to take at least a couple of weeks to kick in.” To wit,

Data from Pfizer’s clinical trials suggests the vaccine might start safeguarding its recipients from disease around one or two weeks after the first injection. A second jab of mRNA, delivered three weeks after the first, helps immune cells commit the virus’s most prominent features to memory, clinching the protective process.

Biopharma Dive reports that “AbbVie raised the list prices of many of its drugs on Jan. 1, while Biogen hiked the price tag of its old multiple sclerosis treatment Tysabri, part of broad, sector-wide increases typically taken at the start of a new year. The hikes could feature in calls for drug pricing legislation as a new Congress and new administration begin work.” Timing is everything.

Here a few loose ends that have been tied up.

  • According to Healthcare Dive, “Haven, the high-profile, secretive venture to lower healthcare costs backed by Amazon, J.P. Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway, is suspending operations in February after three years, the company announced Monday. Haven caused waves when launched in 2018, with a lineup of notable hires from within the healthcare industry. However, the nonprofit, independent company is now closing with little concrete to show, hinting at the difficulty of reforming the complex insurance system and curbing rising costs in the deeply entrenched healthcare industry. Haven said in a statement on its website that Amazon, J.P. Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway would use the information it gained moving forward and continue working to create programs addressing the health needs of their combined 1.2 million employees. Shares of major U.S. insurers got a bump in Monday trading following the news, with UnitedHealthcare and Humana each climbing more than 2% since noon.”
  • According to Fierce Healthcare, “New York Life completed its acquisition of Cigna’s group life, accident and disability insurance businesses in a deal valued at $6.3 billion.” Cigna like CVS Health / Aetna has decided to focus its attention on healthcare.
  • Congress.gov reported today that the Senate has returned to the President his nomination of Craig Leen to be OPM Inspector General because the Senate failed to act on the nomination during the 116th Congress. The President may renew the nomination for the 117th Congress.

Thinking about the OPM Inspector General caused the FEHBlog to check to see whether the latest OPM Inspector General semi-annual report to Congress (period ended September 30, 2020) is online and by golly it has been posted right here. The lead article in the report discusses the impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency on the FEHBP. The management response to the Inspector General’s report is available here.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

Tonight the House is voting on the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021(Amendment to H.R. 133), which includes the Fiscal Year 2021 omnibus spending bill, COVID-19 relief measures, and a whole lot more. After the House votes, the Senate will vote and send the Congressionally approved bill along to the President for his expected signature.

Late this afternoon, the FEHBlog found, thanks to the Hill, a complete version of the bill which included 400 pages of complicated amendments to the Affordable Care Act (Division BB). However, when the FEHBlog tried to find that version on the House Rules Committee website tonight in connection with this post, he couldn’t. There’s no sense delving into those healthcare provisions until a law is passed. In the words of John Godfrey Saxe (according to WikiQuotes), “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”

(P.S. This morning Bloomberg reports that Congress passed H.R. 133 by wide margins. Congress wisely also passed a seven day extension of the current continuing resolution funding the federal government because as Bloomberg reports)

Before the president can sign the full package, it must be enrolled on parchment paper, physically delivered to the White House and reviewed by administration lawyers — a process complicated by the pandemic and coming Christmas holiday.)

Moving on, under current law, a prescription drug manufacturer cannot sell a prescription drug at a price below the best price paid by Medicaid. Only Medicare Part D is excepted from that rule. Today, the Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services (“CMS”) finalized a rule that creates a second exception for value based pricing arrangement. CMS explains:

Under current regulations, prescription drug manufacturers face challenges accounting for VBP arrangements in their Medicaid best price reporting to CMS. This has the unintended consequence of hindering providers, insurers and prescription drug manufacturers in their efforts to develop innovative payment models for new drug therapies and other innovative treatments. Current regulations also discourage payers and manufacturers from designing new payment arrangements based on the value their product may provide.

With the new flexibilities under this final rule, manufacturers will be more willing to negotiate with payers, including Medicaid, with drug pricing being driven by the value of their drug to the individual patient. This is significant, especially in the era of new genetic-based treatments which may initially be expensive, yet in the long run offer significant value to the patient and payer. Payers will be able to negotiate prices with manufacturers for these genetic-based treatments based upon outcomes and evidence-based measures such as reduced hospitalizations, lab visits, and physician office visits, ensuring that if such measures fail to support the value of a drug, the payer is not held accountable for the full price. 

Today’s final rule codifies a broad definition of VBP, which can better align pricing and payment to observed or expected evidence and/or outcomes-based measures in a targeted population. The final rule also allows manufacturers to report multiple best prices instead of a single best price when offering their VBP arrangements to all states. By making these changes, effective in January 2022, CMS hopes to encourage VBP arrangements and negotiations to help make new, innovative therapies more available to all patients. As a result, it is estimated that these new VBP approaches could save up to $228 million in Federal and state dollars through the year 2025.  

Bravo. This action will support FEHB plan efforts to control drug costs.

On the Solarwinds backdoor hack front, Federal News Network discusses its impact on federal government cybersecurity efforts.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

Another Monday, another COVID-19 vaccine — the newest from Oxford University (UK) and Astrazeneca. The Times of London reports that

Oxford University scientists said this morning that they had created “a vaccine for the world” as trial results showed that their Covid-19 jab worked well enough to apply immediately for regulatory approval.

The vaccine involves two injections, administered at least a month apart, and the results suggest that using a lower first dose could boost efficacy to 90 per cent. However, that finding relied on limited data and may be amended.

Overall, a trial involving 24,000 people suggested that the vaccine was about 70 per cent effective.

It prevented severe disease and the need to be admitted to hospital, and there are promising early signs that it might also block transmission of the virus. No dangerous side-effects were reported, and the British medical regulator has begun to review safety and efficacy data.

Britain has ordered 100 million doses, and Astrazeneca, the drug company that is working with Oxford, said this morning that four million of those would be ready to be sent to care homes, GP clinics and other vaccination centres by the end of the year.

The Oxford vaccine can be stored in a normal fridge, making it easier to handle than Pfizer’s competing inoculation, which must be stored at about minus 70C. It is also considerably cheaper, costing a few pounds per dose. It is possible that the first doses could be administered before Christmas.

The FEHBlog heard on Fox Business this morning that a separate phase three trial for the Oxford vaccine is ongoing in our country. Oxford and Astrazeneca will present an emergency use authorization request to our Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) based on that as yet uncompleted trial. The trial referenced in the Times of London article was conducted in the United Kingdom and Brazil. The FDA does not require that the phase three trials be conducted in the U.S. For example, the agency approved the Ebola vaccine based on a phase three trial conducted in Africa, but of course there’s no problem finding COVID-19 patients here.

Reuters reports that the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will meet on December 10 to review the Pfizer / BioNTech emergency use application for its COVID-19 vaccine. The FDA is not bound by the Committee’s recommendation. Here is a link to the full FDA press release.

A friend of the FEHBlog recommended the 20 minute long Journal podcast interview with the founder of BioNTech Dr. Ugur Sahin. The FEHBlog found that podcast fascinating listening.

Govexec.com reports that “The departments of Defense and State, as well as the Veterans Affairs Department’s Veterans Health Administration, the Bureau of Prisons and Indian Health Service, will all receive a direct allocation of vaccines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The plan was spelled out in a COVID-19 Vaccination Program Interim Playbook, which was first reported by CNBC.” 

Following up on the major Health and Human Services rule makings on Fridays here are article with industry reaction:

  • As the FEHBlog expected, Fierce Healthcare reports that “A hurried final rule aimed at tying drug prices to those paid by foreign countries could lead to providers paying more for drugs than what they will get reimbursed by Medicare, according to several providers and experts.” It really makes you wonder why the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates conditionally endorsed adding a public option to the ACA marketplace earlier this month.
  • Fierce Healthcare further informs us that “CMS’ Stark, anti-kickback updates draw praise from hospitals, concern from physician groups.”
  • Health Payer Intelligence discusses the Medicare rule restricting the use of prescription drug rebates in Medicare Part D effective January 1, 2022. The FEHBlog cannot understand why if drug manufacturers want to end the rebate practices, it does not assure (with an enforcement mechanism) the health insurance industry and the government that the price reductions will balance out the lost rebates.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s COVID-19 Data Tracker website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 20th through 46th weeks of this year (beginning May 14 and ending November 18, roughly six months; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

The upward surge in COVID-19 cases is reflected the CDC’s latest overall weekly hospitalization rate chart for COVID-19 (disregards the dip at the right side of the chart):

The FEHBlog has noted that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases greatly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the same six month long period (May 14 through November 18) (the dip at the tail of this chart is accurate information).

Meanwhile the CDC’s weekly flu surveillance report continues to inform us that “Seasonal influenza activity in the United States remains lower than usual for this time of year.” Better one epidemic than two.

On the bright side, according to the Wall Street Journal, Pfizer and BioNTech did file an emergency use authorization request for their COVID-19 vaccine today.

Now it will be up to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to decide whether the two-shot vaccine works safely enough to roll out to millions of people.

It is unclear how long the agency will take to review the vaccine, which Pfizer and BioNTech just days earlier said was 95% effective and well-tolerated in a 44,000-subject trial.

Given the urgency, the FDA is expected to move quickly. The timing of the filing is in line with industry and government officials’ projections for authorization and distribution to begin next month. Pfizer said the filing could allow for distribution to begin the middle to end of December.

The Health and Human Services Department (“HHS”) released a string of final rules today affecting Medicare prescription drug plans and both hurting and helping the finances of doctors participating in Medicare and certain other federal health programs (but thankfully not the FEHBP). As the saying goes, he who lives by the sword can die the sword.

  • HHS issued a final rule generally barring the use of prescription drug rebates in the Medicare Part D program effective January 1, 2022.
  • HHS issued another final rule that implements, effective January 1, 2021, a pilot program”, known as the Most Favored Nation (MFN) Model, [that] will test [for seven years] an innovative way for Medicare to pay no more for high cost, physician-administered Medicare Part B drugs than the lowest price charged in other similar countries.”
  • Finally. HHS issued a final rule which loosens up on self-referral a/k/a Stark Act rules that inhibit the entrepreneurial spirit of doctors participating in Medicare. The purposes of the change is to facilitate value based pricing and coordinated care. Doctors should like this one but the FEHBlog wonders whether the AMA will think that it goes far enough.

Of course, we also will have to wait to see the incoming Biden Administration’s reaction to these rules.

Healthcare Dive discusses conflicting viewpoints on AHIP’s position which the FEHBlog shares that the COVID-19 relief law Wild West approach to health plan coverage of out-of-network COVID-19 leads to price gouging. Only Congress can fix this problem.

Speaking of Congress, Govexex.com reports that

Congressional leaders have voiced early speculation in recent days that lawmakers will be able to set line-by-line funding levels for agencies throughout government before the end of the year without the need for another stopgap measure. 

Top negotiators in the House and Senate met on Thursday to discuss a potential compromise for the rest of fiscal 2021 appropriations. On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was the most recent leader to cautiously express optimism that Congress can pass a full-year, omnibus spending bill before the current continuing resolution expires Dec. 11. 

“The anticipation was that it was really about the omnibus,” Pelosi said of the meeting. “You have to remember, we have to have an omnibus bill. We must keep government open.” She added it was a “very important responsibility” during the lame duck session of the 116th Congress. “We don’t want another continuing resolution. I don’t think they do either.”

Finally, the FEHBlog was impressed by Humana CEO Bruce Broussard’s call for health system interoperability without further delay. Mr. Broussard is Board Chair of America’s Health Insurance Plans for 2021. Here’s a snippet.

Change requires reforming the incentive structure to encourage and require vendors to create and sell systems that can talk to each other. Health care systems, hospitals, and physician practices — guided or encouraged by the market and the federal government — should choose interoperable systems. Public and private payers should implement value-based payment models that reward the purchase and use of interoperable systems. It’s also up to the federal government to implement and enforce standards for EHR vendors that promote interoperability while simultaneously strengthening the protection of personal health information.

If industry and government don’t lead the charge to make America’s health care system interoperable, consumers will bear the challenge of piecing together their own health data across the system — a dangerous prospect that could hinder patient care in the midst of a global pandemic. The free flow of protected data across the health care system ensures that treatment decisions are informed safely and effectively by the most current information available and tailored to the individual. A clinician with complete information at her fingertips can easily see the full picture and manage her patient’s care from the hospital to the pharmacy to long-term follow-up care.

This pandemic will eventually end. But the need for interoperability will remain urgent as we seek long-term solutions to bring down costs, improve care delivery, and increase efficiency in our health care system.

There’s no time like the present.

Happy National Rural Health Day

Photo by Tomasz Filipek on Unsplash

It is National Rural Health Day which HHS’s Health Resources and Services Administration is proud to celebrate.

The Defense Department reports on yesterday’s Operation Warp Speed press conference. The Wall Street Journal adds that

Initially, people will be vaccinated at hospitals and large medical centers because supplies will be limited, said Marion Whicker, deputy chief of supply, production and distribution at Operation Warp Speed, the federal initiative to speed development of Covid-19 drugs and vaccines. “When you see vaccines start to equal or exceed demand is when you’ll see it out of the pharmacies,” said Ms. Whicker.

According to Endpoint News, “BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin told CNN Wednesday that they and Pfizer plan to file for an emergency use authorization for their jointly developed vaccine on Friday [/ tomorrow].

The Wall Street Journal further reports on the COVID-19 front that

U.S. hospitals say they are facing the pandemic’s largest surge armed with treatment improvements that allow them to save lives, care for more patients and accelerate the recovery of coronavirus sufferers.

HCA Healthcare Inc., one of the nation’s largest hospital chains with 186 hospitals, has more intensive-care capacity as the sickest patients recover more quickly. At the Mayo Clinic’s hospital in Rochester, Minn., coronavirus patients now stay a median of five days, half as long as in March. The time Covid-19 patients spend at Advocate Aurora Health’s 26 Midwestern hospitals has fallen 25% on average since May.

The shift could be a result of several factors and more study is needed, said doctors and researchers. But the results are consistent with anecdotal reports from doctors saying that new tools and a better understanding of how Covid-19 attacks the body are helping to improve medical outcomes.

Also HHS announced today launching

a pilot program with five states to use portable, cartridge-based COVID-19 molecular test kits that provide rapid results. The pilot program will assess how to best integrate diagnostic technology developed by Cue Health, Inc., into strategies for disease surveillance and infection control in institutions such as nursing homes.

Used successfully as the primary molecular point-of-care (POC) test to control the spread of COVID-19 within in the National Basketball Association “bubble,” as well as by leading healthcare providers in the U.S., the nasal swab POC test generates results in about 20 minutes. Currently, molecular COVID-19 tests provided by HHS must be sent to a laboratory for interpretation, which can take two to three days.

The Centers for Disease Control and the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association and the American Nursing Association are encouraging Americans to curb holiday travel and scale back holiday gatherings due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. That’s a useful message for health plans circulate to members and employees.

Following up on this week’s launch of Amazon’s online Pharmacy, the Drug Channels blog comments that

This announcement is much less disruptive than it appears to be. Amazon is copying the GoodRx discount card model—including GoodRx’s partnership with Express Scripts. At the same time, Amazon is launching a mail pharmacy that will accept insurance and be in PBM pharmacy networks. Amazon’s actions are another negative headwind for retail pharmacies, but not a fatal blow to the system. Perhaps Amazon will one day become a true disrupter. For now, Amazon is choosing to join the drug channel, not fundamentally change it.

Healthcare Dive lets us in other expert insights on this development.

In other prescription drug coverage news, the Wall Street Journal reports this evening that

The Trump administration is planning on Friday [/ tomorrow] to roll out two final rules aimed at lowering drug prices—one curbing rebates paid to middlemen in Medicare and another pegging the prices of certain prescription drugs in the U.S. to their prices in other developed countries, according to a person familiar with the planning. The plans, slated to be announced in the White House Rose Garden, have been a signature pledge of President Trump’s since his 2016 election campaign. Both rules are expected to be final, meaning they have completed the required public comment period and can take effect immediately.

“Immediately” in this setting would not prevent the incoming Biden Administration from putting the brakes on the iniative without trouble, in the FEHBlog’s opinion.

In other news —

  • According to a press release, “The Sequoia Project, a non-profit and trusted advocate for nationwide health information exchange, patient identity management experts collaborated with the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) to apply A Framework for Cross-Organizational Patient Identity Management for the payer community and develop person matching strategies. Today, The Sequoia Project published Person Matching for Greater Interoperability: A Case Study for Payers which demonstrates high matching accuracy rates, and provides actionable insights for improving person identity matching across the payer community, a critical component of successful health information exchange and interoperability.” Helpful.
  • According to Fierce Healthcare, “While insurers are set to weather COVID-19’s financial storm, an inability to keep up with how the pandemic is changing healthcare will be credit-negative in the long term, according to a new report from Moody’s Investors Service. The coronavirus pandemic has put a spotlight on chronic conditions, the need for continued investment in telehealth and virtual care and the drive toward value-based care, according to the report. Health plans that are able to adapt to these changing trends are far better positioned for long-term success, Moody’s said.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

The Boston Globe reports today that

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said Tuesday that as many as 20 million people could get coronavirus vaccinations around the end of the year.

He said that by that time there could be as many as 25 million doses of vaccine available from Pfizer and 15 million doses available from Moderna. The vaccination takes two shots so that would mean 20 million people could get protection.

He said it could happen by the end of December, or early January if the timeline slips a bit. “That’s what we’re anticipating and hoping,” he said in an interview at the 2020 STAT Summit.

The Wall Street Journal adds that

The strong early results for two leading Covid-19 vaccines have implications that go far beyond the current pandemic: They suggest the time has come for a gene-based technology that could provide new treatments for cancer, heart disease and other infectious diseases.

The [previously] unproven technology, named messenger RNA after the molecular couriers that deliver genetic instructions, has long eluded researchers. An mRNA vaccine has never been cleared by regulators. It is now the basis for Covid-19 vaccines from Moderna Inc.  and Pfizer Inc. and its partner BioNTech SE. * * *

The mRNA vaccines’ early success [with COVID-19] “gives us some encouragement for the technology for other vaccine targets in the future,” said Dr. Mark Mulligan, director of the Vaccine Center at NYU Langone Health. 

One of the advantages of mRNA vaccines, [Biotech co-founder] Dr. [Ugur] Sahin said, is that they can be quickly adjusted so vaccines can better respond to an eventual decline in immunity or virus mutations, which could render other vaccines less effective. Dr. Sahin said that regulator authorization [of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines] could potentially lead to a “whole new category of medicines.”

Hope springs eternal.

Healthcare Dive informs us that “After years of speculation, Amazon finally announced Tuesday that it will sell and deliver prescription drugs on its online platform, Amazon Pharmacy.” Moreover —

Here’s a key distinction in how Amazon Pharmacy will operate: “Before checking out customers can compare their insurance co-pay, the price without insurance, or the available savings with the new Prime prescription savings benefit to choose their lowest price option,” Amazon said.

A previously vexing problem for patients was that sometimes prescription drugs would be cheaper using cash, or without using insurance coverage. But pharmacists were sometimes barred from alerting patients to the discrepancy due to “gag clauses.” In 2018, Congress passed a bill to ban gag clauses in certain plans.

Amazon Pharmacy shoppers will be able to input their insurance information and their clinicians will be able to send prescription information directly to the Amazon Pharmacy.

Speaking of market disruption, Plan Sponsor advises us about the growing popularity of “individual coverage health reimbursement arrangements (ICHRAs) to provide their workers with tax-preferred funds to pay for the cost of health insurance coverage that workers purchase in the individual market [/ the ACA marketplace].” This is the one major Trump Administration reform to the Affordable Care Act that did not attract opposition, in court or elsewhere, because it unquestionably strengthened the ACA marketplace.

On the healthcare studies front –

  • The National Library of Medicine informs us about the susbtantial patient safety benefits of including the patient’s photograph in the top line of their electronic health record when used at healthcare facilities, particularly emergency rooms
  • The National Institutes of Health announced $21 million of funding into research examining racial and ethnic disparities in pregnancy-related complications and deaths.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 700 women die each year in the United States from pregnancy-related complications.

Research will include original, innovative, and multidisciplinary efforts to advance the understanding, prevention, and reduction of pregnancy-related complications and deaths among disproportionately affected women. This includes women from racial and ethnic minority groups, women with underprivileged socioeconomic status, and those living in underserved rural settings.

The racial disparities in pregnancy-related mortality are stark: respectively, African American and American Indian/Alaska Native women are 3.2 and 2.3 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than are white women. In the case of African American women, the disparity increases with age. Black women under 20 are 1.5 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than are white women in the same age group, but black women ages 30-34 are 4.3 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than are white women ages 30-34. Approximately two thirds of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, underscoring the need for more research to improve the maternal health outcomes for women before, during, and after delivery.

In addition to maternal deaths, over 25,000 women each year experience severe maternal morbidity(link is external) (SMM), requiring unexpected short- or long-term life-saving healthcare interventions. Like maternal mortality, SMM has a high rate of preventability. All racial and ethnic minority populations have higher rates of SMM than do white women.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

OPM has posted an announcement about the beginning of the Federal Benefits Open Season which kicked off last Monday and the NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins offers guidance on how to celebrate the upcoming holidays with exposing yourself to COVID-19.

To illustrate that the Pfizer COVID-19 game in town vaccine is not the only game, Fierce Healthcare offers articles on two candidate which offer greater pre-administration stability, one by CureVac and the other by Johnson & Johnson.

Leaning on its years of experience, the drugmaker is well on its way to producing 1 billion doses of its COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 and is looking ahead to 2022, said Paul Lefebvre, VP of strategic initiatives and COVID-19 vaccine supply chain at J&J’s Janssen unit, in an interview. 

J&J’s shot could have a storage and distribution edge over the likes of those from Pfizer and BioNTech, Lefebvre thinks. 

“In our plans, we will bring our product at -20° C into the J&J warehouses around the world,” he said.

J&J’s shot is expected to remain stable for up to two years at that temperature, about -4° Fahrenheit. Once it goes out to distributors and customers, it can be kept stable at 2 to 8° Celcius (a range of about 35.6° to 46.4° Fahrenheit) for up to three months, not much colder than your average refrigerator, Lefebvre said. 

As previously noted, the COVID vaccine manufacturers will seek emergency use authorization (“EUA”) from the Food and Drug Administration follow the completion of the phase III trial. Phrma, the drug manufacturer trade association, provides readers with an understanding of FDA EUA.

The FDA may issue an EUA, when, among other things, the agency determines that based on all of the available scientific evidence, the known and potential benefits of the vaccine outweigh the known and potential risks. To underscore this, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn has said repeatedly in recent weeks and months that the agency would only consider an EUA if it felt the risks associated with the vaccine were “much lower than the risks of not having a vaccine and the potential benefit of having a vaccine.”

The agency has further taken steps to ensure the robust vaccine candidate review process by engaging the Vaccines & Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) to discuss the development and potential authorization of vaccines to prevent COVID-19 after issuing guidance on FDA’s recommendations for an EUA submission for a COVID-19 vaccine.­

The Department of Health and Human Services announced today its partnerships with chain and independent pharmacies to administer the COVID vaccines as the vaccines received EUA and are made available to the public under the government allocation plan, which kicks off with first responders.

In prescription drug benefit news,

  • Drug Channels is offering its “annual deep dive into employer-sponsored coverage for prescription drugs,” and
  • Good Rx unveils the 2021 changes in popular CVS Health and Express Script formularies.

Finally, the FEHBlog wants to call attention to Katie Keith’s excellent analysis of last Tuesday’s Supreme Court argument in the California v. Texas case. Although Ms. Keith does not project an outcome, the FEHBlog is comfortable stating that the Supreme Court will preserve the Affordable Care Act for the third time, except perhaps for the zeroed out individual shared responsibility provision, which already is a dead letter.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s Cases in the U.S. website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 20th through 44th weeks of this year (beginning May 14 and ending November 4; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

and here is the CDC’s latest overall weekly hospitalization rate chart for COVID-19:

The FEHBlog has noted that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases greatly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the same period (May 14 through November 4).

On the flip side, also according to the CDC, “seasonal influenza activity in the United States remains low.”

Fierce Biotech discusses the progress of a Humanigen investigation new drug called lenzilumab which is undergoing a phase 3 trial.

If the trial succeeds, lenzilumab could emerge as part of the arsenal for treating some of the sickest COVID-19 patients. Lenzilumab may stop cytokine storms, the severe hyperimmune responses that drive organ damage in some COVID-19 patients. Currently, physicians treat such severe patients with steroids and Gilead’s remdesivir, but there remains a need for more efficacious therapies. 

The chances of anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies meeting that need have diminished in recent weeks as prospects in development at Eli Lilly and Regeneron have failed in severe COVID-19 patients. Efforts to use existing drugs, notably anti-IL-6 antibodies such as Sanofi’s Kevzara, to stop cytokine storms in COVID-19 patients have also failed. 

In other investigational drug news, the Boston Globe reports that

Biogen Inc.’s experimental Alzheimer’s disease therapy [mentioned in the FEHBlog earlier this week] failed to gain support from a panel of US Food and Drug Administration advisers on Friday, putting the drug at a crossroads as the agency weighs approval.

The outside experts voted 8 to 1, with 2 undecided, that data from a single clinical trial with positive results was insufficient to show Biogen’s drug works. The vote contradicts a report FDA reviewers prepared ahead of the meeting that supported the efficacy of the drug, called aducanumab, though there was dissent in the agency. * * *

The advisory committee’s recommendations aren’t binding. The FDA often calls on panels of experts, including researchers, medical professionals and patient representatives, when it is considering whether to approve a new drug. Wall Street analysts said the FDA seemed set on viewing the drug positively.

“This will be a test for the FDA on what happens when the FDA is on one extreme and the panel is seemingly on the other, with science and evidence or the lack thereof being at the core of discussion,” Mizuho analyst Salim Syed said in an email to Bloomberg News.

At long last (given the fact that the Medicare Open Season stated on October 15), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services this afternoon announced Medicare Part B premiums and Parts A and B cost sharing changes for 2021:

  • The standard monthly premium for Medicare Part B enrollees will be $148.50 in 2021, an increase of $3.90 from $144.60 in 2020.  The fact sheet that would show income adjusted premiums for high earners was unavailable online this evening. Check again here on Sunday.
  • The Medicare Part A inpatient deductible that beneficiaries will pay when admitted to the hospital is $1,484 in 2021, an increase of $76 from $1,408 in 2020. 
  • The annual deductible for Medicare Part B beneficiaries is $203 in 2021, an increase of $5 from $198 in 2020.

CVS Health not only announced third quarter earnings today; it also disclosed that its current CEO Larry Merlo is retiring and Karen Lynch, who currently heads the Aetna business unit, will replace him. Congratulations to both of them. Healthcare Dive adds

CVS’ medical loss ratio was 84%. That’s compared to just 70.3% in the second quarter as consumers deferred non-essential care amid COVID-19.

CVS has now administered more than 6 million COVID-19 diagnostic tests across 4,000 testing sites, representing 70% of all testing done in retail settings, Merlo said.

Health Payer Intelligence discusses how “Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois (BCBSIL) has partnered with hospitals across the state in a new program that seeks to pursue health equity by focusing on mitigating health disparities for racial and ethnic minorities.” Well done.